But parenting is the most difficult of all jobs.
A coworker and his wife welcomed their first child into the world a couple of weeks ago. I love infant humans the most, I told him. They still smell sweet, they’re completely helpless, they’re immobile so they can’t destroy stuff in your house yet, and it’ll be a while before they can talk back. I suggested this irreverent book to him if he hadn’t already heard of it, which got us on the subject of cussing and the importance of teaching your young child essential cuss words in different languages. I said my great-grandmother Sullivan taught me how to say Kiss my ass! in Gaelic when I had only just started talking, an expression he said he already knew, oddly enough. (And in case you didn’t, it goes like so: Póg mo thóin! but sounds like ‘Pug ma hone!’ Go on and try—it’s fun.)
Anyway. As much as the seasoned parents among us may wish to impart some kernel of wisdom to new parents, the truth is that parenting looks different for every child, in every family. I remember in those precious first days of my child’s infancy, cradling him at my shoulder while he slept and watching his heartbeat through the soft fontanel atop his fuzzy head, I imagined I’d do All The Things to assure he grew up just right, and would lead a satisfying and productive adult life. It’s the end goal after all.
This notion is utter folly.
My kiddo tumbled into this world under duress, which is to say, his birth mom was navigating a tough chapter in her life and recognized she was ill equipped to parent a new baby boy. I can’t even begin to fathom her anguish. A couple of days or so after he came into our care, mine and my ex-husband’s, found me standing nervously by as our most excellent pediatrician examined him. What cherry red lips he has, he observed. Chapped, I wondered? No, just beautiful red lips, he reassured me. He went on to explain how his reflexes were all healthy, noted the tiny infant aiming for his mouth with a thumb, an indication of self-consolation and a good thing he said, and finally pronounced him healthy, fit as a fiddle, but with absolutely no guarantees. A final note, before sending me on my way for the day: They’re all born with a distinct personality, no doubt about that, he insisted. You may be able to influence a number of outcomes, but you’ll never change who he is—it’s hard wired into him.
Fair enough, and anyway why would I want to. Still, he’ll have the best of the best. We’ll introduce him early to classical music and straight-ahead jazz and art and literature and beautiful cuisine and any number of immersive enrichment activities…and on and on. And all of this will surely guarantee a successful outcome. Surely.
There’s a particular scene I get to observe most mornings on my commute to work, and it goes like this. I spy an oncoming yellow school bus with its lights all aflash, indicating it’s slowing to a stop. Cars going both directions obediently wait for the children to board. What I love most, aside from the sight of little people in no particular hurry, wearing their Thomas the Tank Engine or rainbow unicorn backpacks and sparkly light-up sneakers, construction papers flapping around in their hands, are the moms and dads waiting there with them to see them off to school, many times still in their jammies and bathrobes. It’s such a powerful metaphor for the selflessness parenthood demands of us, how monumental the challenges of protecting and guiding a developing human being. And however much of a hurry I’m in to get my workday started, I find this one moment where we’re all compelled to press pause so utterly hopeful and restorative.
No guarantees. It’s a notion a Knoxville friend loved to quote aloud and often, almost to the point of being insufferable.
But maybe a better way to frame parenting is recognizing that ‘successful outcome’ can look as different from one kid to another as that hard-wired personality of theirs.
To new babies and their new parents, all I can really offer is this single uncomplicated sentiment: Life is short. Go get ‘em, tiger. (And try to get some sleep.)